News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

December 30, 2012

2012 in Review: Changes continued in education field

Fourth of five parts

TERRE HAUTE — In 2011, the Indiana Legislature passed a series of monumental school reform laws intended by proponents to overhaul Indiana’s education system.

Those measures — backed by State Superintendent Tony Bennett, Gov. Mitch Daniels and a Republican-dominated legislature — included private school vouchers, expansion of charter schools, high-stakes teacher evaluations and collective bargaining restrictions affecting teacher unions.

Several of the measures are already being implemented, although the full impact is yet to be determined.

One of the biggest education news stories in 2012 has to be the continuing changes brought about by that legislation.

Some view the changes as positive, but others — including Mark Lee, president of the Vigo County Teachers Association — object to the term “education reforms,” which he describes as a misnomer.

Instead, Lee describes those changes as “negative legislation and punishing policies inflicted upon public education.”

Lee says the definition of reform “is to make or become better by the removal of abuses, errors and faults in order to bring about moral, political and social improvement. The policies of the past eight years have little to do with reform.”

Instead, Lee states, “We have policies enacted to protect the most privileged in our society, cloaked in the guise of social conservatism.”  

Others don’t agree with that stance. David Wulf of Terre Haute, who is now vice president of employment law and labor relations policy with the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, supports private school vouchers, expansion of charter schools and the new teacher evaluation system, although he understands there are some “bugs” in that evaluation system that need to be worked out.

Vouchers benefit families who are looking for an alternative to public schools, he said. “We have a great school system in Vigo County. They try to provide educational opportunities for all students,” Wulf said, but some families want a different approach to education.

Taxpayers who choose private schools should be able to benefit from vouchers. “I don’t know why it’s anyone else’s business where that child goes for that education and why we would want to withhold support from someone who chooses to go elsewhere,” said Wulf, whose three children attended the former Sacred Heart School in Terre Haute and then attended Vigo County public schools.

He also believes that public charter schools have brought “huge benefits” in places such as Indianapolis and Gary. In the past, low-income families in those communities whose children were in poor-performing schools had no options, he said.

In Vigo County, a new evaluation system has been implemented for teachers and administrators. Also, preliminary discussions began recently with the Vigo County Teachers Association on a new contract that won’t take effect until August. That contract, by law, will be limited to salary and benefits.

There will be a separate set of administrative guidelines that deal with such areas as working conditions.

Some of the reform measures, including the new evaluation system, have caused much stress and added burdens, Superintendent Dan Tanoos said recently. “I think the Legislature sometimes punishes good school systems” because of the poor performance of a few, he said.

While he doesn’t agree with many of the changes, “You have to play the hand that you’re dealt,” Tanoos said. The district will abide by the new laws and policies and make the best of them.

But reform in Vigo County is nothing new, Tanoos said. “We feel like we reform every year. Reform is a constant in education.”

One thing hasn’t changed, he said.

“I’m seeing the same great things going on in our classrooms that I’ve always observed,” Tanoos said. “I see teachers and principals working as hard as they can each and every day. It didn’t take a law to cause that to happen. They do it because they are professionals.”

He believes that the election of Democrat Glenda Ritz as the new State Superintendent of Public Instruction will help ease some of the stress levels of public school educators.

Republicans still control the Statehouse and the governor’s office, and education reform laws won’t be repealed anytime soon. But with Ritz as state superintendent, public school educators are confident she “is going to stand up for us and she will listen to us,”  Tanoos said.

Terry Spradlin, director for education policy at Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education, believes it’s important to give the new laws and reforms time to work “before we can fully judge whether they are effective or not.”

After Newtown, a new urgency

The Dec. 14 tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., which left 20 young children and six educators dead, prompted school districts across the nation to heighten security levels and re-evaluate their safety plans and procedures.

What happened at Sandy Hook Elementary “has changed the whole game plan of school security,” Tanoos said recently.

As school resumes from winter break and a new year begins, Tanoos said new safety protocols will be established, security will be strengthened where necessary, and meetings with law enforcement related to school safety will continue.

“We believe we have safe and secure schools,” Tanoos said, but “we have to tighten up a couple of areas.”

Rose-Hulman president dies

On April 20, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology President Matt Branam died unexpectedly of heart complications. He was 57.   

 A Terre Haute native, he was the 14th president of Rose-Hulman, his alma mater. Before returning to Rose-Hulman, Branam had served as the first-ever chief operating officer of the American Red Cross and vice president of public affairs at UPS.

While serving as the college’s president, he launched The Great Debate, a strategic planning process. Also, the college maintained its No. 1 ranking in U.S. News & World Report’s annual college ranking of specialized undergraduate engineering institutions.

Robert A. Coons is serving as Rose-Hulman’s interim president while a search for a new president is under way.

SMWC contests federal audit

In the spring, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College received a bombshell when a federal audit stated that it should return $42 million in loans and grants made to students between 2005 and 2010, something the college has challenged.

The Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Education said the college’s students, both on campus and distance education, should not have received Title IV federal financial aid.

The audit said the college’s distance learning programs did not meet the regulatory definition of “telecommunications courses” and should instead have been categorized as “correspondence” courses.

The college disagreed and says its accrediting agency has designated its distance programs as telecommunications.

The college “has always acted in good faith with full transparency, and the program has always been completely approved by the Higher Learning Commission,” college president Dottie King said at the time.

The college hired outside legal counsel.

“The final resolution lies with the Department of Education. These discussions are ongoing and we are confident that the Department of Education will deliver a reasoned interpretation,” King said in a written statement last week.

While the matter is still being resolved, the college remains accredited and students’ financial aid is not affected.

ISU enrollment reaches 12,000

In August, Indiana State University’s enrollment climbed to its highest level in nearly 20 years, officials reported.

Student headcount was 12,114, up 5 percent over last year — an increase of nearly 600 students.

Three years of significant growth among new students, as well as improved retention, were cited as major reasons.

With ISU’s student body exceeding 12,000, the university was two years ahead of its enrollment goals.

Now, ISU wants to increase its enrollment to 14,000 by 2017 as part of its updated strategic plan. “I think it’s realistic,” ISU President Dan Bradley said in August.

ISU hopes to achieve the new enrollment goal through a combination of more distance education students, improved retention and strategically growing the freshman class.

State funding for full-day kindergarten

Indiana’s decision to increase funding for full-day kindergarten has led to an increase in students enrolling in kindergarten programs across the state and more state dollars being doled out to local schools.

Earlier this month, the state distributed nearly $190 million in full-day kindergarten funding, more than double the $81 million spent last school year, according to the Indiana Department of Education.

The money went to 338 public school corporations and charter schools that collectively saw a 19-percent increase in the number of students enrolling in full-day kindergarten programs: from 66,401 in the 2011-12 school year to 79,110 students this school year.

Earlier this month, Vigo County received $3 million through the kindergarten grant program, said Christi Fenton, VCSC director of elementary education. “We’re thrilled about it,” she said. The district has been able to offer a free, full-day program at all elementary schools.

In the future, Fenton hopes to see the program fully funded, continuing year after year, as part of the state funding formula.

Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or sue.loughlin@tribstar.com.

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